There’s been a lot of talk about anonymous social media accounts being used for all the wrong reasons in the UK* recently. It’s easy to overlook all the people who choose anonymity without malice. I don’t tweet anonymously so I can troll people, let alone send abusive or threatening tweets. In fact, I actively avoid getting into rows on Twitter. I challenge the lies, hypocrisy, stupidity and facileness of David Cameron and George Osborne directly from time to time but that’s about it. I criticise policies, parties, people, media outlets and companies but don’t directly attack people.
I blog and tweet anonymously because I market legal services through the internet under my real name. I’m not ashamed of anything I say on Twitter or here – I’m just being myself – but if a prospective client googles me, what are they going to think about my being left of Labour? I don’t do much good in this world but I try and I can only try if I can, yes fine if you want to put it that way, hide behind a mask. In theory my political opinions shouldn’t matter to clients but the reality is rather different once they’re actually out there. Don’t ask, don’t tell is safer. What would the prospective client think about the dirty jokes, sweariness, occasional giggly drunk tweets or early morning pre-coffee tweets? Or the posts here on chronic pain? Would it make them uncomfortable dealing with me? Would I want to deal with the potential for being pitied if all the other stuff hadn’t already put them off? Anonymity allows me to be outspoken, honest and even a bit vulnerable. Without the ability to do that I would feel I have to stop saying a huge portion of what I say here and on Twitter. I wouldn’t feel free to be me anymore. My Twitter account would become a less sweary, less funny version of Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe (or a more funny, more sweary version of TV Burp). I may well stop using Twitter completely because what would be the point?
I can think of loads of great people on Twitter who don’t tweet under their real names. They inform me and others and add so much to my enjoyment of Twitter. Among other things, like me, they also tweet politically and tweet dirty jokes. Some of their late night drunk tweets are a welcome break from bad news with my morning coffee (you know who you are). I don’t know their reasons for tweeting anonymously (except in the case of parody accounts where it’s obvious) but I guess they’re similar to mine because they’re good people. They’re not out to cause misery to others. They want to be among like minded people. They want to say things they feel need to be said and which the mainstream media doesn’t say. They want to laugh too.
People may also be more willing to share their experiences on hashtags dedicated to gathering stories of racism, sexism, ablism, homophobia etc if their accounts are anonymous. Those hashtags can be a real eye opener for people who haven’t experienced whatever they’re about. If they change perspectives, the stories can change the lives of the people sharing them for the better too.
I’ve never used and have no intention of ever using ask.fm but isn’t one of the ideas behind it to ask questions users would be embarrassed to ask face to face? Surely David Cameron wouldn’t need to call for a boycott if anonymity was removed because kids would stop asking questions they’re embarrassed to have their name put to. Is that a positive outcome for those users? It could be in some cases, I suppose. I don’t really know enough about it to say but at least I’ve got the sense to admit it, unlike our fearless leader who, as one site put it
“sent his mouth ahead as an advance party, allowing his intellect and reasoning to arrive at their leisure.”
Following the vicious barrage of tweets she received, Stella Creasey MP said:
“Fifty per cent of stalking cases involve both on and offline harassment – with many perpetrators using the anonymity of the web to pursue their prey”
It’s a fair point but it also ignores another potential reason for using social media anonymously: it actually provides people with a measure of protection against online attacks shifting into the real world (not complete protection, as Old Holborn discovered when his offensive trolling backfired with all the fury of a box of semtex, but enough to make it difficult for the attacker). When you think about how serious some of the threats to high profile women who get taken seriously by the media and police have been, is it any wonder some people would rather not put information out there which could draw Twitter abusers to their home or office with barely any effort at all?
I agree that it’s important to deal with the problem of threatening and abusive tweets and cyber bullying on a range of sites but, even if enforcing a ban on anonymity wouldn’t throw up technical and organisational problems, I don’t believe it could possibly be a proportionate response to the problem.
If I could only tweet under my real name I would indirectly lose the ability to say what I believe through the law of unintended consequences. A lot of good people I know through Twitter (and ones I don’t know yet) would too. As ever the test of convictions is whether you apply them universally and there are also people on Twitter whose politics I despise but who also have the right to free speech, provided they aren’t breaking laws against inciting hatred and violence. Some of them may tweet anonymously due to a combination of fear of a backlash from other users and fear for their jobs.
A lot of people participated in the Twitter Silence recently. A lot of people say that online abuse, threats and bullying silence the people they’re aimed at. If anonymity was to be banned on Twitter voices of dissent and people who are just connected with other people without ever causing harm to anyone would be silenced by default and an important part of Twitter really would go silent, not for a day but for good.
* I’m aware of steps to supress use of social media in other countries of course but the reasons are different and the arguments against it are already being widely made. That said, anything the UK Government does or says to restrict the use of social media and the internet leaves a tiny crack for a government in a repressive country to stick a jimmy in with the argument “the UK has its values and social order. It takes steps to protect them. We are also taking steps to protect our country’s values and social order. The UK Government should support us in this.”